Last Lord’s Day we read of the Lord’s appearance to his disciples on that first Easter Sunday evening and considered how and why the Lord laid such great emphasis on the fact that he was again a body, that the very body that had died on the cross, was alive again. This is what the Bible means by resurrection: the coming to life again of the self-same body with which human beings have lived their life in this world. It is a body remade for eternity, but it is nevertheless the self-same body. Now Luke continues his narrative of that Sunday night gathering and what the Lord said to his disciples on that occasion.
That Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophesies of the ancient Scriptures has been a main theme of this Gospel. The Lord himself had often taught his disciples that what he was teaching and doing had been precisely anticipated in the books of the Bible that we nowadays refer to as the Old Testament. By referring to the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms — one typically Jewish way to refer to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible [Bock, ii, 1936] — he effectively said that every part of the Bible bore witness beforehand to his life and work. Luke has reported Jesus, in respect to himself, referring to texts from all of those three divisions of the ancient Scriptures. This is a point he had made earlier that day in his gentle rebuke of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in v. 26. There is much else in the OT besides prophesies of the work of the Messiah, but no one can read the OT without recognizing that it points forward to a figure who would come to bring both salvation and judgment to the world. And concerning this figure, who he would be and what he would do, we read a great deal in those ancient scriptures.
As earlier, in v.27, he explained in as much detail as time allowed, how the ancient Scriptures had been fulfilled in his life and work. One may assume that the hearts of these men and women burned within them as they listened to Jesus explain how all that had happened in his life and ministry had been anticipated in the Scriptures, burned as had the hearts of the two disciples as they listened to Jesus on the road to Emmaus talk about the same things. Here we read that “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” It was this clear and thrilling discovery of how perfectly Jesus had fulfilled the ancient prophesies that burned in their hearts. We wish, of course, that we knew precisely to which texts he referred and what he said about them!
This is biblical universalism. The good news is for everyone and it will be embraced by people from every tongue, tribe, and nation on earth. It must be embraced but it is for everyone!
I wonder if, as the Lord spoke these words, it dawned on Peter and the others, that the Lord had just called them to leave home and country and travel the world proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. Did they see their lives taking a radically different turn as they listened to these words? Did they gulp? In any case, at the beginning it had to be these men, because they had seen it all and could speak from first hand acquaintance with Jesus himself.
The “promise of my Father” is a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which story Luke will tell in the opening chapters of his second volume, the Book of Acts. His disciples were not to undertake in their own strength the great mission to which they had now been called; they were to wait for the Spirit who would empower their witness and draw multitudes to faith in Jesus.
But note that Jesus himself is sending the Spirit. “I am sending the promise of my Father.” The materials of the doctrine of the Trinity are here: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in intimate relation and all possessing the authority, power, and mind of the living and true God. Matthew, if you remember, ends his Gospel also with a reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There are many fascinating aspects of the Lord’s final speech in the Gospel of Luke. But I want to draw our attention to something that is fundamental to the message of the entire Bible and to the substance of the Christian faith and for that reason, no doubt, is mentioned here at the very end of the Gospel. What did Jesus Christ do? Well, he tells us here, he suffered and died and on the third day he rose from the dead. Now he did many other things we know; he was a worker of miracles; he was a teacher of the faith. But what he did, what he came to do, was principally to suffer, to die, and to rise from the dead. This is what in Christian theology is called the atonement. The atonement is Christ’s suffering for our sins and rising from the dead. A sacrifice had to be made for our sin and he made it. Punishment had to be exacted for our sin and he endured it. And his resurrection completed that sacrifice, was the public demonstration that God had accepted it as satisfaction for our sins, and that our sins having been paid for, we too by the power of God would rise to live forever in God’s company and fellowship.
But that is what Jesus did some two-thousand years ago. Intimately connected to those events — the cross and the resurrection — are the repentance and forgiveness of sins that will come from them in the life experience of untold multitudes of human beings all over the world. Christ’s work had as its purpose both the forgiveness of the sins of particular people, people like you and me, and the transformation of their lives, their repentance, which in biblical parlance, means a turning away from sin and living a life of righteousness, goodness, and holy love.
From time to time the Bible works out the connection between the atonement, the work of Jesus Christ in history, and its consequences in the lives of people who believe in Jesus Christ, but more often than not, as here, the two matters are simply placed side by side. Christ died and rose again, and so repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name should be proclaimed to all the nations. That “in his name” means that the repentance and the forgiveness are the result, the fruit of what Jesus did in our place, of his dying on the cross and his rising from the dead. It is because of Jesus that we can and should repent and it is because of what Jesus did that we can find forgiveness with God. Theologians refer to both the accomplishment of redemption (atonement) and the application of it. The cross and the resurrection are the accomplishment; repentance and forgiveness are the application. Forgiveness and repentance are not and cannot be based on general principles. The world has tried doing that since the beginning and it hasn’t worked and won’t work. We need something far more powerful, far more perfectly suited to the problem, to break the death grip of sin on the human soul and to disentangle it from the fabric of human behavior. Christ’s work is that something greater. Christ came, suffered, died, and rose from the dead to deliver us from our sins, just as the angel said he would before he was born.
People will sometimes ask: what could something done by a Galilean Jew, an amateur Jewish rabbi, long ago and far away possibly have to do with my life today? Of course, put the question a different way and the answer becomes immediately less obviously rhetorical: what could something done long ago and far away by the Creator of heaven and earth, who for the salvation of mankind, came into the world, was put to death by his own creatures and then rose from the dead, have to do with me today? Well, probably a lot. But the answer to that question is that the death and the resurrection of the Son of God are the only things that could ever make possible the true moral transformation of your life or the forgiveness of your sins today.
But all of that presumes a fact that people very often do not see very clearly. Indeed, I think in our time, they see it much less clearly than earlier generations did. And that fact is this: human life is fundamentally, primarily, essentially a moral affair. Every human life is measured by whether or not the person does right or wrong. The world might measure it in other ways: how famous a person becomes, or how much money he or she makes, or how popular, or how intelligent, or how inventive, or influential, or how happy, or even what good works he or she may have performed. But God measures each and every human life by whether or not it is good, and by good is meant good as God defines good, good in the sense of obedient to God’s commandments, good in the sense of loving toward God and one’s neighbor, good in the sense of honest, sincere, pure, kind, generous, self-sacrificial, respectful, humble, and devout.
From the very beginning of the Bible to its very end, this and this only is the story of human life and of every human life. And the drama of human life is created by the awful fact that since the fall, men and women, though they know what is good, do what is bad instead. This world is a seething cauldron of human misbehavior, of unkindness, of infidelity, of dishonesty, of impurity, of raging pride, of disrespect, hypocrisy, stinginess, and hatred. But, and this is both man’s misery and his salvation, we still know what is good, even if we don’t do it. It is that tension between the knowledge of the good and the practice of evil that makes the story of this world and of every human life in it so full of sound and fury.
And, as Jesus himself pointed out more than once, no one can deny that this is the case because he himself or she herself proves it to be every single day. We are always passing judgment on others for their failure to be good; we are always holding others to what we hold to be a universal standard of goodness. We are always looking down on others because we judge them to have failed to reach that standard. You remember his warning: “Judge not, lest you be judged; for with the same standard by which you judge others, you too will be judged.”
Nor can you suppose that we humans really don’t share the same standard by which to measure human life? The fact is, no matter our great differences over morality in America today, what is called “values” in our superficial and subjective age, we still operate — all of us do — with virtually the identical moral framework. We can’t help it because, as the Bible reminds us, we have been created in God’s image and his law has been written on our hearts.
So the gay-rights advocate despises the defender of normative heterosexuality as someone who is unkind, unfair, and unjust, moral standards everyone accepts and judges others by, while the defender of marriage between a man and a woman condemns the other side for impurity, for their careless disregard for children, and for their hatred of people who have a different viewpoint and for the arrogance that leads them to overturn the settled wisdom of the ages. Again, universal standards of morality. Both sides will condemn still others for precisely the same sins for which they have been condemned by the other side in this debate. We speak of honor among thieves and mean by that that everyone, even the most immoral of people, is constantly making moral judgments about other people according to the same code by which his or her own conduct has been condemned. Trotsky famously approved of Lenin’s murder of the Tsar, but he condemned Lenin’s effort to murder him! And so it goes. We cannot forever point the finger at someone else without at some point realizing that we are incriminating ourselves, that we are declaring ourselves worthy of condemnation.
I read a fascinating article this last week about the Matthew Shepard murder case. Though the murder happened some fifteen years ago now, you may well remember it because it became not only a national news story but a defining moment in the movement for the normalization of homosexuality. The article I read was essentially a long review of a new book on the Matthew Shepard case, a book written by a man who is himself a liberal homosexual who has spent years investigating both the actual crime and the reporting of it afterward. If you remember, the approved account was that Matthew Shepard was beaten to death by two strangers simply because he was a homosexual. He was found in near-freezing temperatures some eighteen hours after the beating, tied to a rail fence crucifixion-style and died of his wounds five days later.
Shepard immediately became a symbol of the gay-rights movement and Laramie, Wyoming, where the murder occurred, was branded as typical of the intolerant, cruel, and violent homophobia that is a stain on American life as slavery was and racism has been. Well, it now appears — and virtually everyone now admits this — the facts were otherwise. Both the little facts and the big ones were sacrificed to make Matthew Shepherd a hero of the movement for sexual liberation.
Shepard was not tied to the fence crucifixion style and even after years of investigation, Stephen Jimenez, the author of the new book on the case, could not explain how that particular piece of misinformation became common knowledge. But, more to the point, Shepard’s death had nothing to do with his homosexuality. It was, alas, simply another of the thousands of deaths that result from drug deals gone bad. Both Shepard and one of his murderers sold crystal meth. It is possible, though not yet certain, that they had in fact been lovers at one point. Some of Jimenez’ sources testified to that.
The Shepard case received a huge measure of press coverage at the time, has been referred to countless times since as proof of the need for the legal protection and normalization of homosexuality, was the subject of no less than four TV movies, of a number of books, and of a play, The Laramie Project, that demonizes the inhabitants of that Wyoming town for creating a culture of homophobia, a play that has been staged more than 2,000 times since it debuted in 2000, often by high school drama departments and most recently at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. The theater’s director explained that he felt he needed to include the Laramie Project as part of the theater’s “exploration of intolerance and injustice” in America. Jimenez’ book, surprisingly, has not been an outrage to the gay rights community because Matthew Shepard long ago contributed his service to the cause, they’ve virtually won the day, and there is no need to attempt to dispute the facts now when the lies did them so much good for so many years. [A. Ferguson, “What Happened in Laramie,” Weekly Standard (Nov. 18, 2013) 30-32]
Now, I don’t tell that story because it concerns gay rights, but because it is a perfect picture of our human predicament. It may not be the morality tale people made it out to be, but it is certainly a morality tale. There is all the sin — the selling and using of drugs, the blighting of human lives by that means, the careless ruin of other’s souls in order to make money, the violence that is an endemic part of the drug culture, the hatred, the jealousy, and the self-interest that would lead to murder and a particularly vicious murder, the nightmare of a family that produced both Matthew Shepard and his murderers, but as well the pervasive dishonesty, the demonization of groups of people, the hate that animated both sides of the debate, and the cynicism that so willingly sacrificed people and truth and reputations to an ideology. That’s human life and no one who reads a newspaper, or watches television, whether news or features or entertainment, or, for that matter, anyone who opens his eyes or thinks about what he hears, can deny that that is human life everywhere and all the time. In the Middle East, in Asia, South America, Africa, Europe, and North America the story of human life is a story of people behaving very badly.
Virtually every novel that is written, certainly every great novel, and every movie is a morality tale. Our politics is a morality tale. Every politician is going to correct some wrong that is being done and make the situation right. That they rarely succeed is the index of our problem, but that they cannot help but try is the proof of our ineluctable moral nature as human beings. We see everything in terms of right and wrong; we who do wrong all the time.
And that is what explains the Bible in its utter uniqueness and fabulous importance. It is the only book; it is the only teaching in the world that takes with equal seriousness man’s moral nature and his moral failure. It alone explains those two things, chief among all things that must be explained. But it also alone offers a convincing solution to man’s problem in sin.
That problem has two parts. One is that man has accumulated a record of sinful behavior — of moral defect — a record so thick, so comprehensive that no human being who is at all thoughtful can possibly seriously hope to find acceptance with the judge of the all the earth who is perfectly good and just. We know, we all know, that we fail to do right, that we fail to do for others what we wish others would do to us, that we are guilty of the same sins that we so readily condemn in others, that we are vain but have no reason for our vanity and vain even though we despise vanity in others. The accumulated weight of days and nights, of weeks and months and years of moral failure has buried us under a mountain of moral debt. That is what we mean by the guilt of sin, its power to render us susceptible to judgment and to punishment. In biblical parlance, our only hope is that we might be forgiven. There is nothing we can do about our past, and, truth be told, our future is not likely to be much better. We add by the day to the dismal moral record of our life.
The other aspect of our problem is precisely the same but looked at from a different viewpoint. Our problem is still sin, the same sin, but not sin as guilt, not sin as needing forgiveness, not sin as rendering us liable to divine punishment, but sin as our way of life. How can we possibly change? How can such bad people, selfish people, and little people, ever become good, loving, and admirable in their thoughts, their speech, and their behavior?
And from the beginning of the Bible to its end these two questions — how sins might be forgiven and how lives might be transformed — are the principal subjects. That there is forgiveness with God is the first great affirmation of Holy Scripture, a forgiveness made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who bore in our place the punishment our sins deserved. Throughout the Bible we are treated to one beautiful declaration of the forgiveness of sins after another.
God has separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west.
There is forgiveness with God that he might be feared.
The Lord delights to show mercy.
He has buried our sins in the deepest sea; cast them behind his back, trampled them under his feet, and remembers them no more.
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
And many, many more statements like those. But in the same way we are treated throughout the Bible to the transformation of life, to sinners becoming righteous, to bad people becoming good — not perfectly in this life, but definitely, really good. We are treated to the narrative of transformed lives, we sing of that transformation in the psalms, the need for and possibility of repentance or transformation is preached to us by the prophets, it was the central message of both John the Baptist and Jesus, and it continued to be central to the proclamation of the good news by the apostles.
There is nothing like this in the other holy books of the world or in the secular philosophies of life. None of them even takes seriously our need for both forgiveness and transformation — though that need is the most obvious fact of human life — and none of them offers a serious solution to the human problem of sin, of moral failure, of moral creatures who live immoral lives.
Marxism promised a new man, but he never showed up, not least because Marxism had no solution to the problem that bedevils the life of every human being, viz. his or her own sin. Our utopian politics have consistently failed to overcome man’s moral failure, have often made it worse and, in any case, never seriously or honestly addresses the problem, which is, in the final analysis, the only human problem. If you can’t solve this problem, you won’t solve any of the others, all of which derive from human misbehavior in some way. The problem is always the man himself, the woman herself. Without a fundamental transformation of the individual, social structures, political action, even coercion for the sake of the common good, has never worked and never shall. What is needed is moral transformation and that cannot happen without forgiveness, for without forgiveness man will never have the blessing of God.
It is this that makes Jesus Christ the only hope of the world. He meets our need. He alone can and he alone has. He has done the work upon which God can extend forgiveness to sinners and transform their lives. In Jesus and no other we can experience a fundamental reorientation of our lives and forgiveness for our misdeeds. Jesus can give us spiritual healing in its fullest sense; peace with the God who will someday judge the living and the dead. And being reconciled to God we can be reconciled to one another as well. Forgiveness and transformation of life, as God gives them to us in Christ, are both private and social gifts. When people are transformed as Jesus Christ transforms them, they become good for other people, not just for themselves.
A problem as deep-seated, as profound, as universal, and as destructive as the human penchant for bad behavior, even though we know the difference between good and bad, cannot be addressed by a superficial solution. And there is nothing superficial about the incarnation of God the Son, his becoming a man to suffer and die in our place, and his resurrection from the dead. These are the greatest things that have ever happened. They are impossibly great because they had to be in order to deliver us from our sin! Forgiveness as God gives it is an absolutely delicious thing. And the transformation of a sinner who believes in Christ is a dramatic, wrenching thing that leads to a lifetime of wearying work and struggle. There is nothing superficial, nothing cheap about the Bible’s answer to the human problem.
In the early years of the twentieth century, The Times of London asked several prominent writers to write on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton, the journalist, Christian apologist, poet, and writer of detective fiction, famously supplied the shortest submission. In answer to that question — What’s wrong with the world? — He wrote, simply, “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Exactly. If more of us would be honest enough to answer the question the same way, not only would our society and our politics be much better for it, but — and this is immensely more important — more of us would realize that there is only one solution to our terrible problem: what Jesus Christ did to secure our forgiveness and the transformation of our lives.
This then is our message — our proclamation as Jesus put it — there is forgiveness and a new and infinitely better way of human life, but only Jesus can give them to you.